Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
February 26, 2002


Born Again, Part II:
The Transformation of our World

Dr. Marcus J. Borg
Hundere Professor of Religion and Culture
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon

(This sermon is also available in audio)

I welcome to you to this second and last of my two sermons here this year. Once again I have valued being with you, and I have been received with generous hospitality, and I'm grateful. I thank this parish and the Lenten preaching committee for inviting me and hosting me so well.

As I make the transition to my sermon this morning, I want to begin with two brief prayers. One is a modified form of the ancient Jesus Prayer; the second one is a brief prayer frequently used by John Hines, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church from 1964 to 1973. Join me in a moment of prayer.

Lord, Jesus Christ, you are the Light of the world.
Fill our minds with your peace and our hearts with your love.

And from Bishop John Hines:

Gracious God, when we would make much of that
which cannot matter much to you, forgive us.
In the name of Jesus, our body and blood,
our life and our nourishment. Amen.

This year, as I announced yesterday, my two sermons are two parts of a whole. Neither is complete without the other. Together, my two sermons speak about the two transformations at the center of the Christian life, personal transformation and social transformation. The premise of both sermons is that the Christian life is primarily about a relationship with God that transforms us. It's not primarily about believing a set of teachings or doctrines, but it's about a relationship to the one to whom these teachings and doctrines point, namely, a relationship with God as known in Jesus.

Secondly, Christianity is not primarily about an afterlife. Indeed, whenever the afterlife is emphasized, Christianity suffers a serious distortion. When the afterlife is emphasized, our attention gets focused on the next world, whereas I think being a Christian is primarily about transformation this side of death. Being Christian is about a transforming relationship with God in the here and now. Yesterday I spoke about the personal transformation, the internal and individual transformation--by speaking about being born again. Today I speak about the social transformation by speaking about the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God was utterly central to Jesus. One New Testament scholar has written: Ask any 100 New Testament scholars what was most central to Jesus' message, and all 100 will answer: The kingdom of God. We see this in the inaugural address of Jesus in Mark's gospel. It's in Mark 1:15. It's very brief and very pointed. It says simply: "The kingdom of God is at hand." The verse continues: "Repent and believe this gospel." The word "repent," though I don't want to linger over it today, means go beyond the mind that you have and then believe this gospel. For Mark, the gospel is the coming of the kingdom of God.

We also see its centrality in the many parables and short sayings of Jesus that concern the kingdom of God. We see it, most familiarly in "The Lord's Prayer". Right up front in "The Lord's Prayer", right after we ask for the hallowing of God's name, we pray: " Thy kingdom come." The kingdom of God is not heaven. I think you all know that. But it's been easy for generations of Christians to imagine that the kingdom of God is about heaven because of the phrase that Matthew uses for this notion. In Matthew's gospel, the kingdom of God is regularly called the kingdom of heaven. That is because Matthew is, perhaps, the most traditionally piously Jewish of the gospel writers. And as a devout and pious Jew, he avoids using the word God out of reverence whenever possible. But when Matthew writes about the kingdom of heaven, he means kingdom of God. Thus, very importantly, the kingdom of God or Matthew's kingdom of heaven is something for the earth's.

In a way, this is something we should have known for a long time from "The Lord's Prayer" itself, for when we pray "The Lord's Prayer," we pray: "Thy kingdom come on earth as it already is in heaven." We oftentimes miss that because we say that prayer in the nice cadences and nicely balanced couplets of Matthew's version of it. You know how it goes. "Our father who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." We leave those little beats of silence, and we miss the fact that every time we pray that prayer, we are praying: Your kingdom come on Earth.

As my colleague, John Dominic Crossan, pungently and provocatively remarks: "Heaven's in great shape. Earth is where the problems are." That's why we pray for the coming of God's kingdom on Earth. So, what did this phrase mean? Well, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as both present and future. Its present meaning seems to be a power or presence and community that you can experience now. You can enter the kingdom of God, be in the kingdom of God according to the Gospels. But it is also spoken of as future, as something not yet here but still to come. The crucial realization for seeing what the kingdom of God meant in the teaching of Jesus is the realization that in the world of Jesus, kingdom was a political term. Kingdom of God was a political metaphor, for there were other kingdoms in the time of Jesus, other kingdoms that Jesus' hearers lived under. There was the kingdom of Herod. There was the kingdom of Caesar. Jesus' hearers knew what those kingdoms were like, and here was Jesus talking about the kingdom of God. Thus, it is not simply a political metaphor but what has been called a theo-political metaphor. Theo, of course, is from the Greek word for God. The kingdom of God combines religion and politics. God and politics.

What is the kingdom of God? Very simply, it is what life would be like on earth if God were king, and those other guys weren't. If God were king and Herod were not; if God were king and Caesar were not. What were the kingdoms of this world like in Jesus' time--the kingdom of Herod, the kingdom of Caesar? They were domination systems in which ruling elites of power and wealth used their power to structure the political and economic systems in their own narrow self-interests. Imperial Rome structured the system in her own self-interest. Under Rome, native monarchies and native aristocracies structured the native systems in their self-interests. In the Jewish homeland, the native domination system was centered in the Herodian monarchies, and in the temple and the temple authorities in Jerusalem. In that ancient world, these ruling elite structured the system so that approximately two-thirds of the annual production of wealth flowed to the wealthiest one to two percent of the population. This was the setting in which Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God, to repeat language I used just a moment ago, is about what life in this world would be like if God were king and the domination systems of this world were not. In short, the kingdom of God is about God's justice. Now, justice and injustice concern the way a society is structured. Justice is not about charity. Charity is terribly important and always will be, but justice and charity are not the same thing. Justice includes criminal justice and procedural justice, even as it is a broader and more comprehensive notion. Justice, God's justice, includes economic justice.

To put that only somewhat differently, God's justice is about the just distribution of God's earth. This claim is based upon a central affirmation of the Bible that we find articulated in a familiar line from the 24th Psalm. The Psalmist asks the rhetorical question: "To whom does the earth belong?" Then, the Psalmist answers his own question: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." But we treat the earth as if it belongs to us. As a species we do that. We typically think of the earth as being here for human purposes and human ends, and within the species we treat the earth as if it belongs to some of us more than others. We divide it up. This is ours; it's not yours, and so forth. We act as if the world belongs to us. And elites of power and wealth act, in particular, as if the earth belongs to them.

But the kingdom of God is about the just distribution of God's earth. The kingdom of God is about God's passion for justice. Indeed, the kingdom of God is God's passion. And so, Jesus was a prophet of the kingdom of God. He stood in a long stream of theo-political voices in the Bible. This emphasis upon God's justice--about this intertwining of religion and politics--runs right back to the beginning of the Biblical tradition, to the story of Moses and the Exodus. Ancient Israel had its origins in liberation from the domination system of imperial Egypt. You find the same thing in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. They are God-intoxicated voices of peasant religious social protests against the domination systems of their time, which means, primarily, the monarchy within Israel. And Jesus stands in that same stream of passionate advocacy of God's justice.

Jesus was a prophet of the kingdom of God, of God's justice, and it got him killed. This is the political meaning of Good Friday. The domination system killed Jesus. Good Friday is the domination system's "no" to the kingdom of God. Easter is God's "yes" to Jesus, God's "yes" to the kingdom of God, and God's "no" to the domination systems of this world. This is the political meaning of the season of Lent. In Christian history we have most typically domesticated all of this. We have lost the political edge that runs throughout the Bible and through the message of Jesus. We have domesticated it in part by emphasizing the afterlife. It's not about transforming this world; it's about heaven and hell. We have also domesticated it by thinking of the central dynamic of the Christian life being sin, guilt, and forgiveness. This focuses attention on individual wrongdoing and our need for repentance and forgiveness. That's important, but if we're going to talk about sin a lot, we need to start talking about systemic sin--the way sin as self-interest gets built into the structures of society and is used by elites of power and wealth in their own narrow self-interests.

I turn now to some applications of Jesus' emphasis upon the kingdom of God, and the application is politics and justice. I want to say up-front that this is the least popular thing that I talk about in my life on the road. There are a number of reasons for that; one is the endemic individualism of American culture where we tend to think that everything we have in the world is the result of our own individual achievement. If people don't have much, it's because of their individual shortcomings. It's because of that American slogan of separation of church and state which, in many people's minds, gets turned into separation of religion and politics. It was never meant to mean that. It's also because, I'm convinced, that for many Americans their political loyalties run deeper than their religious loyalties. So, saying up-front that this will not be everybody's cup of tea, let me suggest that taking the kingdom of God seriously involves politics.

I don't know what to call this kind of politics--can't call it liberal politics because that word has been so besmirched. Progressive politics, perhaps? A politics of compassion, perhaps? Or perhaps we could simply call it the politics of the kingdom.

Let me provide you with some examples of what I think this might mean for our time as citizens and residents of this particular country--not a comprehensive list, but some for instances. I think it minimally means universal healthcare. It's just astounding to me that we don't have this in our country. There are countries in the world that are not as prosperous as we who do have that. If the argument is made that the quality of healthcare will go down for all of us if we make it universal, well, should I be entitled to superb healthcare if the cost of that is no healthcare for some people?

A politics of the kingdom would also mean a concern about the growing gap between rich and poor in our country. That gap has widened dramatically in the last 40 years. Want a statistic? I know statistics can be distrusted, but try to listen to this one. In 1965, the wealthiest one percent of American families owned 23 percent of what are called family assets. Family assets are anything that can be owned by a family--stocks, property, etc. By 1995, the wealthiest one percent of families in our country owned 43 percent of total family assets. I think it is much more difficult to be a poor person in this country now than it was 40 years ago.

It's not only that this wreaks havoc on the lives of the poor, but I think it is making our society an increasingly unstable society for all of us. Yet that gap is growing. The primary factor encouraging the growth of that gap is economic policy, and tax policy, in particular. If you have followed the tax bills before Congress over the last several years, all of them benefit primarily the wealthiest two percent of our population. We throw a sock to people making $50,000 a year or whatever so that everybody will feel good, but the real benefits go to those at the top who structure the system in their own narrow self-interests.

A politics of the kingdom would mean concern about ecology, concern for the environment and the non-human world, for God loves the whole of creation, and the whole of creation belongs to God.

A politics of the kingdom would also mean serious reflection about what it means to be an imperial power, for we are as a nation the imperial power of our time. Like it or not, that is who we are. We are the Rome of our time. We need to be as thoughtful, responsible and creative as possible about the use of our imperial power, for it can be used in two very different ways. We can use it to control the world in our own self-interest and to impose our will upon the world, or we can use it to build it up. It makes all the difference which we choose.

Taking Jesus seriously and taking seriously his emphasis upon the kingdom of God means consciousness-raising in the church about the way systems affect people's lives. Taking the kingdom of God seriously means taking social justice seriously. Taking the kingdom of God seriously means taking the causes of human suffering seriously. Taking the kingdom of God seriously means taking God's justice seriously.

As I move to my conclusion, I want to return to the two transformations at the center of the Christian life--the personal transformation and the social transformation, born again in the kingdom of God. Both are utterly central to Jesus, the New Testament and the Bible as a whole. If we emphasize only one of these, we miss half the gospel. The strength and weakness of much of conservative Christianity is that it emphasizes primarily the first. The strengths and weakness of much of liberal Christianity has been that it emphasizes primarily the second. But both matter. Both are central. It seems to me that what we see in Jesus answers to our deepest personal longing--that longing to be born again, even as it answers to the world's greatest need--the kingdom of God, what life on earth would be like if God were king and the domination systems of this world were not. Or, even more simply, the Christian life is about our love for God, and loving God means paying attention to our relationship with God, and paying attention to that relationship is the process of being born again. Loving God means loving that which God loves. And that means the kingdom of God. Amen.

Copyright ©2002 Dr. Marcus J. Borg

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